Multi-Generational Gaming

And in this particular post, I’m not talking about teaching our kids to be gamers (although that’s certainly an interesting topic and worthy endeavor), but rather the notion of playing a long-term game in which the characters marry, have children, grow old, and then the players take on the roles of the children, beginning the cycle over again.

As far as I’m aware (and I may well be wrong), the only game that this has actually been incorporated as an integral aspect of the design of a game is Pendragon by Greg Stafford, first published by Chaosium in 1991 and most recently by White Wolf in 2006. I’ve never actually played it myself (a fact which I regret, especially so as a friend of mine in the area has been running a campaign for the better part of a year now, and I just don’t have the time to participate), but the idea that one would not only play a character, but the descendants of that character, has always fascinated me, so much so that I wonder if it could be applied to D&D.

The key seems to be the establishment of a rich social component of the setting, in which the rules of marriage (in terms of who can, or would want to, marry who) are spelled out in some fashion, which would in turn lead to some sort of table determining whether or not a particular marriage would be considered viable and the proposal accepted. The sort of dynastic interplay that such a system implies is absolutely rife with potential in terms of role-playing opportunities and “deep background” for a setting; we see the barest glimpses of it in the dynastic struggles described by Gary Gygax in the Great Kingdom, and in the thwarted marriage of Prince Thrommel which forms a significant part of the background for the original Temple of Elemental Evil module.

But D&D, one might legitimately argue, is somewhat more contracted in its time scale than a game like Pendragon. In D&D, the player characters are always on the go, and the opportunities for dynastic considerations are somewhat limited.

However, I could easily see this idea as an extension of the”lost” D&D endgame. In their early days, the characters are looking for loot and adventure. Eventually, around levels 10-14 or so, they settle down, found their own freeholds, and then… what? I contend that, if a campaign were geared for such a thing, they marry, have children, and then their children start off in search of loot and adventure. And thus begins the whole cycle anew. It could also give some more use for the social class and circumstances of birth tables from Unearthed Arcana.

Consider the case of the four classic classes; cleric, fighter, magic-user, and thief. The cleric founds a temple, rises in the Church hierarchy, etc. His daughter, brought up as a novice in the temple, is then sent out as a wandering priestess in her own right, complete with a letter of introduction from her loving father. (Assuming his faith doesn’t require celibacy, of course; in such cases, a young novice at the “Gen1” character’s temple would  more than fill the bill). The fighter clears land, founds a freehold, and in the process expands the boundaries of the realm (or, civilizes some of the wild borderlands, or re-civilizes a small portion of the lost empire that preceded him, etc.). His son, trained to the family calling, similarly sets out. The magic-user who has also cleared land and set up his tower has trained his own boy… The thief, now head of his own guild/family/whathaveyou, sends out his son to learn the family business the same way he did; from the bottom. You get the idea.

But an endless parade of sons and daughters to fill the ranks of the party might well be boring. The players may, if they wish, start off brand new characters. It really wouldn’t matter; the Gen1 characters are now (mostly) NPCs, and everyone needs a family.

The question of time is a legitimate one, but one which can be overcome with a slight change in play style. In short, it requires that the DM actually keep track of time. In my own campaign, I keep track of time, and when winter starts to roll around, the player characters are pretty much grounded until spring, unless something extraordinary comes up during the colder months. That serves to advance time. Mine is also a pretty far-ranging campaign, so there’s a lot of travel between cities and kingdoms that also eats up time.

And, honestly, in a game that recognizes the passage of time as a necessary thing, I might ask if its really that much different for the game master to say, “okay, it’s been five years, and all of a sudden a messenger from the Duke shows up…”, as opposed to, “okay, you spend five days in the inn healing your wounds, and then a messenger from the Duke shows up…”.

Note that I am not saying that this style of play should necessarily take the place of the “classic” end-game of politicking and large-scale battles (although it certainly could, if the DM wanted it to). Rather, I see it as turning into something of an equilibrium. You play characters “conventionally” for a few years, then, once they advance to higher levels and the play becomes worn, the “end game” clicks in and they are running their own freeholds and founding dynasties. Once that end of the game has run its course, and the players are back to hankering for the classic dungeon crawl, wilderness adventure, and urban intrigues, the next generation can take over.

It’s not something I’ve done myself, but the more I think about it, the more I just might nudge things in that direction.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

7 thoughts on “Multi-Generational Gaming

  1. Started to do this once, but the "Next Generation" campaign, didn't take off. During the last year of the original campaign, we had a multi-year time jump, or two.

  2. The cave man game my Fiance and I are play testing right now (Masters of Flint and Flames) is a BX based game that uses a generational mechanic. I had wanted to put a generational mechanic into the game from the beginning, it's so full of story potential. Winning a mate, protecting a family, and the coming of age of their child are all great troupe in stone age drama. Mechanically it just wasn't that easy however.

    Originally we had thought that the draw of offspring would come from the story and the ability to continue playing your lineage should a character die. It was a nice idea, but eventually the idea evolved into something more thematically appropriate.

    In our game we allow offspring to develop new skills and trades, some of which are not available to the previous generation, giving players incentive to have offspring, while staying true to the troupes of the genera.

    We wanted to force a campaighn reboot everytime one of the players wanted a new abilty so we decided to allow multiple generations of character to play side by side. We have characters aging at the speed of plot rather then any logical system. Achild starts off as a level one character and ages as they gain levels. At a certain level a character's combat and food gathering abilities start to decline, but they may use their experience to direct others more effectively, giving any hirelings or followers bonuses. Thus a player may stay in the game as an elder, or start over as a youth.

    We're still in play test for the game, and with the wedding, and school and work it will be a while before we are done, but so far it's working OK.

  3. My current Rolemaster PBEM is basically the 2nd generation of characters from my old table-top game when I lived near my players.

    The characters include(d) sons and daughters of previous PCs with some of those PCs still active as "Meta PCs" in the background (politics, fighting a war etc.).

    To do this I slid the campaign 16 years into the future and backfilled the history. It has turned out pretty well to date and I think the players like the layering of old PC history with new PC adventures.

  4. My gaming group started playing almost 23 years ago now, in the Temple of Elemental Evil. Our main PCs (the group that "took") are still around, although they have been sidelined by the relative unplayability of Epic Level. Some of them began having children long ago, and others were ret-conned to make it possible for everyone to play the "kids". And so, we have been playing 'TNG', and loving it, for about 2 years off and on. The most recent escapade? The Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (truncated)….sweet flavor.

  5. I used this hook way back when I first started gaming. My players would often prefer to take similar characters to the ones they lost, so offspring seemed a suitable solution. It kept certain magic items, etc "in the family" for the next character.

    I had a player's paladin actually go through 5 generations. The fourth to fifth generation was an adventure hook in itself. The Paladin IV had one son who was kidnapped by evil mean nasty villain. The player knew he had to rescue him if he ever wanted to continue his line. He never succeeded, alas. But I allowed his widow to be carrying his 2nd son. The player was so happy.

    Until he played Paladin VI and his evil brother anti-Paladin V showed up!


  6. We just started a Pendragon campaign last night. It was my first time using the system and I found it quite good. The mechanics are non-intuitive; but, once you get the hang of them the randomness is actually quite good at generating interesting stories.

    I heartily recommend it.

  7. This is a part of my dream of a long-term campaign with the endgame. I don’t (yet) envision any mechanics for it. I suspect it won’t be that often that offspring become PCs. But spouses and children will be important NPCs. Newer PCs will be of a different generation if not directly descended from older PCs. No doubt there will be some “like my own son” relationships between older and newer PCs.

    That’s my dream. Who knows if I’ll ever manage to make it happen.

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